PULLMAN, Wash. – Misha Manuchehri slowly picks her way through plots of barley, wheat and peas. Every so often, the graduate student in crop science at Washington State University stoops to pluck an errant weed at a farm just off campus.
With a bachelor's degree in organic agriculture already under her belt, Manuchehri plans to continue her studies and ultimately find work in sustainable agriculture.
Plenty of others are doing the same at dozens of universities that now offer courses, certificates or degree programs focused on organic and sustainable agriculture. Experts said those graduates shouldn't have trouble finding jobs as the agriculture industry replaces aging farmers — the average age of a U.S. farmer is 57 — and farmers increasingly look to diversify their operations.
"We're always looking at the university for our future ag workers," said Roger Pepperl, spokesman for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers, the nation's largest organic tree fruit producer.
Thirty percent of Stemilt's crops are organic, comprising 3 million boxes of apples, pears, cherries, peaches and nectarines annually.
Organic and sustainable specialists don't just bring their unique skills to the farm, Pepperl said, "but can make our conventional farming better, too."
He noted, for example, that such specialists have new ideas about methods for handling pests, fungus and weeds that use fewer chemicals, making them environmentally preferable and potentially less expensive.
Washington State University, which already offered an organic agriculture degree, recently became the first school in the country to offer an organic agriculture certificate online. At the University of California-Davis, students are enrolling in a new sustainable agriculture and food systems program this fall.
Experts said the growth in alternative agriculture programs is fueled by continued consumer demand for food seen as healthier and rising demand for food that is produced on sustainable farms that are environmentally responsible and treat workers and animals humanely.
In 2003, the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., surveyed land-grant universities about their organic programs. They asked about student-farm acres devoted to organics, the number of courses and degree programs.
The group found that few of the universities had invested much time or money in organic programs.
A similar survey this year has shown different results, said Jane Sooby, a grants program director.
"I haven't finished crunching the numbers yet, but I'm finding a huge acceptance of organic at many of these schools," Sooby said.
Some of these programs have been launched in states that had little organic activity in the past, she said.
This increased focus on organics and sustainability comes amid a long-term trend toward greater education of U.S. farmers.
Curtis Miller, director of education for the American Farm Bureau Foundation, the education arm of the American Farm Bureau, noted that about one-quarter of all farmers today have bachelor's degrees and close to 70 percent have some college coursework. That's up from just 4 percent of farmers and ranchers who had college degrees in 1965.
"Everybody's going back to school because you have to. We know that equals earning potential and survivability on and off the farm," Miller said. "No matter how you raise your food, fiber or fuel, this diversification includes a lot of these educational programs."
Washington state is No. 2 in the country in the value of organic production, behind California. About 9 percent of U.S. organic production comes from Washington, compared with 33 percent from California.
For that reason, Miles McEvoy called Washington State University's organic program "forward thinking."
McEvoy headed the Washington state Department of Agriculture's organic program before being tapped to take over the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic program in 2009.
"Organics are growing. Not at the same rate as a few years ago, but it's still a growth area," he said. "So those farms and processers and other people involved in organic agriculture, they need people who have experience in that area."
In California, organics have been studied at universities for years. Now the University of California at Davis is turning its attention to sustainable agriculture.
Tom Tomich, director of the school's Agricultural Sustainability Institute, said sustainability takes into account global issues, which he argued would become increasingly important in the future because food and agriculture are so central to issues revolving around the environment, hunger and treatment of workers.
"In terms of education, we're going to need a new generation of educators who can frame the great issues of this century from this perspective," he said.
That's in line with what Manuchehri sees for her future. With an undergraduate degree in organics, her graduate work and possibly a PhD, she hopes to find work maintaining the balance between conventional and organic agriculture. She also wants to focus on sustainability issues, helping farms protect the environment while maintaining profits that keep them viable.
"Sustainability is just as important, and I don't think sustainability and organic is the same thing," she said. "There are some great conventional farms that are extremely sustainable, and I could easily see myself working for them."